A Celebration of the Life and Work of Robert Burns 1759-1786 An Independent Revolutionary Radical By James D. Young; Printed and published by Clydeside Press; £3.95
What does Robert Burns mean to me? Edinburgh People’s Festival Published by WP Books; £3.00
It is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns and we have seen a plethora of publications and television programmes “celebrating” the life of the Bard. Every Scottish celeb and every Scottish public figure have been vying to claim Burns as their own or rather to claim themselves as inheritors of the Burns tradition. It is apposite therefore that J.D. Young’s pamphlet A Celebration of the Life and Work of Robert Burns 1759-1786 An Independent Revolutionary Radical, seeks to criticise the cult of Burns and to claim that the only true inheritors of the Burns legacy are independent revolutionaries and radicals like Burns himself.
Young’s pamphlet, as welcome as its message might be as an antidote to celebrity culture, makes far from easy reading. Young’s style is academic and feels disjointed. The mix of history and poetical analysis does not gel and the reader is left bemused by the seemingly endless tangents and confusing sub headings (I expected the section headed Burns Scottish Nationality and Women to give me a bit more insight than the fact that “there has not been a great deal written about these women.” However, Young does set Burns on the Scottish political stage of his time as an independent thinker and a revolutionary. The efforts of generations of establishment and often misogynistic Burns Suppers have failed in their attempts to neuter Burns. We are familiar with the tactic of the modern media of “taming” revolutionary figures. Those they cannot tame, they demonise. It is sickening to listen as some bourgeois establishment figure delivers the Immortal Memory with no understanding of Burns republicanism, his revolutionary fervour or his ability to love. Despite my personal difficulty with the writing, Young’s pamphlet is an important and timely reminder of the fact that Burns is ours. He was one of us and they have no right to claim him.
For a celebration of Burns though another publication is worth a mention. What Does Robert Burns Mean to Me published by Edinburgh People’s Festival. These personal responses to Burns’ poetry manage to covey the scope, the scale and the joy of Burns work. Wee contributions from a selection of people including Timothy Neat, (Hamish Henderson’s biographer), the late Bill Speirs (former general secretary of the STUC), Annie McRae (teacher and poet), Tony Benn, Denise Mina (author), reveal the very essence of the multi faceted Burns. This Burns IS the revolutionary, the visionary and the lover. It is the Burns we grew up with before we knew who he was. It is the Burns who is about feeling and passion and most of all about the essential quality for any would be revolutionary – Love.